Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review of The Who's "Face Dances"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website last night:

Review Summary: This is an underappreciated classic from perhaps the greatest band in rock history.

When Keith Moon died in 1978, Who Fans were crushed. It shouldn't have been a surprise -- Moon was known for living a mad lifestyle, filled with drugs, excessive drinking and demolished hotel rooms. Yet somehow, it was still a shock. For all of his self-destructive behavior, there was something about him that seemed invincible. Consequently, after his death, no one could agree on what should come next. Should The Who even try to replace him, or should they just call it a day as a band? 

To their credit, they decided to continue, hiring a friend, former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones as their new percussionist. Many of their fans were thrilled to see the band find a way to go on. Others, however, resented it. They believed that The Who weren't The Who without Keith Moon, and at times, it seemed like the remaining members of the band agreed with them. It didn't help that Jones played drums in a completely different style than Moon. Where Moon was wild and creative, Jones was simply solid and workmanlike. Many fans and critics alike never forgave The Who for moving on without Moon. So when they released Face Dances in 1981, their first LP of new music subsequent to Moon's passing, it was received in an environment less than conducive to a sober, dispassionate assessment of the music. And the album's reputation wasn't helped by the fact that after Moon's death, The Who's fan base mostly wanted to see the band play their greatest hits during their live shows, a desire the band complied with. Even during their 1981 tour, which was theoretically undertaken to support the new album, The Who only performed five of the then-new LP's nine songs. Unfortunately, the result of all this is that through the years, Face Dances has become an almost criminally underrated album.

Now I'm not going to claim that Face Dances is in the same league with The Who's big three of TommyWho's Next and Quadrophenia. But honestly, very few albums are -- they are rightly considered three of the greatest albums in rock history. And I can understand, to a certain extent, why Face Dances is undervalued -- in addition to the emotion involved in being the first Who album released without Keith Moon, and the fact that much of the its material wasn't promoted by the band's live shows, there's also a subtlety to this LP. It's not a great album for in your face rock anthems. The only really driving songs are "You Better You Bet", the album's most enduring track, "The Quiet One", which is an Entwistle number, and "Daily Records", which for some reason has never been performed live. Add to all of this the fact that by 1981, the music scene itself had changed, and arena rock bands such as The Who were considered to be past their shelf lives, and you can see why this album didn't catch on the way it should have.

Nevertheless, if you judge the album solely by the music and the quality of its songs, there's a lot to like here. Daltrey is in superb voice throughhout the album, as is Townshend. And "You Better You Bet" is justly considered one of The Who's better songs. It's the song from this album that received the lion's share of the airplay, and it has almost always been performed in their live shows since the LP's release. But above and beyond that, there are plenty of other reasons to love this album.

"Don't Let Go the Coat" is a quiet song, but it's one of the best from Townshend's post-Quadrophenia era. Written as a tribute to his spiritual guide Meher Baba, who urged his followers to stay on the path by hanging fast to the edge of his robe in the same way that a small child clings to his mother's jacket so as not to get lost in a crowd, the song is both simple and beautiful. 

Another excellent song is "The Quiet One", an autobiograpical gem written and sung by John Entwistle. A fast-paced and energetic number, this one was written to replace his song "My Wife" for the band's live show. The lyrics are filled with examples of the bass player's famous dry sense of humor: "Still waters run deep so be careful I don't drown you/You've got nothing to hear I've got nothing to say". One of the many strengths of The Who is to have a second songwriter of the quality of Entwistle whose self deprecating wit and playfulness contrasts nicely with the serious-mindedness of Townshend, and this song is one of his best.

There are several other treats on Face Dances, including "Did You Steal My Money", which finds Townshend experimenting with a multitude of different ways to ask the same question; the album-ending "Another Tricky Day" ("This is no social crisis/This is you having fun/Getting burned by the sun"); and especially "Daily Records" which might just be the best Who song you've never heard of.

One the strength of all of this, I consider Face Dances to be the strongest Who album post-Quadrophenia. I realize that this is a kind of heresy, rating it higher than several albums that featured Keith Moon, including The Who By Numbers and particularly Who Are You, Moon's last album. But it is what it is. I've always found Who By Numbers to be a little lackluster, and as for Who Are You, I think the emotions surrounding Moon's demise caused it be more highly regarded than it deserved to be. Also, if you give it a really good listen, you can hear that by this time, Moon wasn't Moon anymore anyway -- too many years of hard living took their toll on his playing. I'll take the delicate pleasures of Face Dances any day. It's an underappreciated and understated jewel from perhaps the greatest band in rock history.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars